BY JONAS BLANK
He served in the Massachusetts legislature during his entire career at HLS, and he still managed to make Law Review. He is only the second openly gay member of Congress, and the first to come out willingly. Known for his often-scathing wit and dogged partisanship, Massachusetts 4th District Rep. Barney Frank is often tagged an enemy of conservatives and a man unafraid to check liberal hypocrisy. But although his speech began with a vehement defense of partisanship, Frank showed respect for anti-terrorism efforts on both sides of the aisle, even as he drew sharp ideological distinctions.
Frank, whose speech was co-sponsored by the HLS Democrats and Lambda, began by asserting that, “One of the most undervalued entities in America is partisanship…. I cannot think of a society in history where you did not have political parties.”
He blasted Ralph Nader for his claim that the Democrats and Republicans were virtually alike and blamed the popular media for characterizing meaningful debate as “partisan bickering.”
Instead, Frank argued: “There has never been a time in U.S. history when parties have been so sharply differentiated.”
Anyone who supports gay rights, tougher environmental regulation, racial equality and combating economic unfairness, he said, has a clear choice: be a liberal democrat. Despite popular perceptions of a “race to the center,” Frank argued that over the past 30 years, the Republican party has become increasingly dominated by its extreme right wing, while the Democratic party has actually moved to the left.
Whatever the media portrayal may be, students should not shy from their ideologies.
“It is a betrayal to shy from a partisan conclusion if that is where objective analysis leads,” he said.
Partisanship only becomes a problem when it impedes the creation of meaningful policy.
The war on terrorism, Frank argued, shows that partisanship does not stand in the way of important legislative objectives. Frank showed pride in the unity in Congress on the issue, though he cautioned against the possibility of an overly extreme reaction. He also called for the U.S. significantly to reduce ties with Saudi Arabia, which he called “our most embarrassing ally.”
Turning to the advertised topic of his speech, civil liberties, Frank said that the greatest danger does not come from the war on terror.
“There is an ongoing assault on American civil liberties, but it doesn’t come from the war on terror,” he said. “It comes from the war on drugs.”
He noted that the most severe civil liberties violations usually come from police searching for drugs, adding that, “If we didn’t have the drug war going on, I’d be willing to give cops more leeway.”
Using Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, Woodrow Wilson’s “Palmer raids” during World War I, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and the McCarthy era during the Korean War as examples, Frank said the war on terror has presented fewer problems than any period in history.
“We have not seen any diminution of freedom of expression,” Frank said. “So far, the war on terrorism has not produced the kind of abuses of civil liberties that people feared.”
Though he peppered his comments with jabs at Attorney General John Ashcroft, who, he repeatedly said, “would have liked to go much farther,” Frank expressed general approval of current U.S. policy.
Frank was especially confident in recent relaxation of Federal wiretapping requirements, about which he said: “You cannot simultaneously tell law enforcement agencies to stop terrorism and tell them not to wiretap. Terrorists don’t put up Billboards saying ‘I’m going to bomb a building…. If they are doing electronic surveillance to find out who wants to kill 3,000 people, I’m all for it.”
Along with broadened wiretapping powers, he noted, Congress also insured that such efforts would be subject to judicial supervision.
And while he said that detaining illegal aliens rather than deporting them was too harsh, Frank added that he was pleased that treatment of U.S. citizens — especially legal immigrants — has been appropriate. As for military tribunals, Frank noted that, “the most important thing to know is they haven’t convened any.”
Frank spared none of his ire — or his trademark humor — for Enron CEO Kenneth Lay, who “deserved” the evisceration he received from many members of congress.
“He said he was ‘instructed’ by his lawyer not to talk,” Frank said. “What, [does he] now work for this lawyer? When did he get the power to instruct him?”
During the question-and-answer period, Frank returned to his attacks on Saudi Arabia, joking, “I don’t know why Saudi Arabia doesn’t qualify to be a member of the axis of evil.”
Frank said he was particularly troubled by the country’s lack of military cooperation with anything but its own self-defense, its continuing support of terrorist organizations and its lack of support for peace between Israel and Palestine.
Among his few well-placed barbs at Bush, Frank said he could not understand his assertion that Iraq, Iran and North Korea constituted an “axis of evil.”
“They’re not an axis. They don’t even like each other,” Frank said. “And the only possible reason I’ve heard for including North Korea was because they didn’t want it to be all Muslims. North Korea was the affirmative action enemy.”